Monday, November 07, 2016

#Reading Ramblings: Canute Revisited (LBE)

You may remember my post from last month about the Canute, which is essentially a braille eReader?

Well, for those who missed seeing the responses in the comments section of that post, I wanted to share a couple of comments left by someone actually involved in the project on my post. So here they are:

Ed Rogers said...

Hi Victoria

I'm Ed from Bristol Braille, the team making the Canute. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the Canute.

# Regarding the books it can read;

The Canute on-board software is entirely Open Sourced here:

Its not locked down to content from any specific provider and we won't be supplying content. No DRM or proprietary formats.

The Canute can natively read any PEF and BRF files. We specifically chose 40 cells wide so any formatted-for-embossing BRF file would show without having to wrap the lines. We specifically chose 9 lines (=360 cells) so that files intended for Braille paper 25 or 27 lines long would split into just three pages. Splitting pages in two would be better, but 14 lines (=560 cells) was too much of a stretch for our resources. Eventually it would be good to offer a 40x27 = 1,080 cells model, but that would certainly not be portable!

By the way, by 'we' I mean the Braillists community, not Bristol Braille. More about them below.

In effect it is a portable Braille library for existing Braille files or ones the user has created them self (using RoboBraille, Duxbury c) and others from libraries like Bookshare.

We could put automatic transcription on the Canute itself, making it accept Word, PDF, EPUB, HTML c. For now we are electing not to as we don't have the manpower to develop or support that. We are developing a plug-in to the free Calibre e-book software that automates conversion to PEF, but users are free to use any free or commercial alternative to produce the files.

Because its Open Source though, if enough people want to add it, they don't need to wait for Bristol Braille to add it. Canute testers can already reflash with their own new version of the software. Those who don't have access to a Canute prototype can run the accessible emulator on their own PC:

So yes, while non-BRF and non-PEF files will need to be transcribed on a PC first (for the time being), the Canute will work with any text file.


Ed Rogers said...

... Continued

# Regarding the price;

I agree with your view on the Canute's intended price. I will explain why it what it is, and hope you can appreciate that we are not at all ignorant of or uninterested in the ramifications of the intended price.

The fundamental point is that we have a duty to make the Canute available at the lowest possible price, due to commitments made to our community of supporters, various grant makers who have paid for the Canute to be developed, and because our mission, making Braille as affordable as possible, requires it.

The Canute mechanism allows the price of Braille cells to fall from around £40 per cell to around £2. But it is still a very complex machine. There are a thousand mving parts, for example. At the moment we have received very limited financial backing and so are restricted in our ability to prototype the hell out of the design and mass produce thousands of units at a time, the two things that would allow the price to drop by another one or two hundred pounds.

It is obviously infuriating for you or any Braille reader to be told that its not possible for the price to drop because of vague design reasons. Its the kind of thing that has made the community justifiably skeptical about all hyperbolic Braille projects, promising the world and disappearing a few years later without demonstrating much at all.

That's why we hold regular show and tell meetings with a group called the Braillists ( in Bristol, Reading and (twice) in Dublin. There is a new group soon to be set up in Worcester. In these meetings, which anyone is welcome to attend, we explain exactly where the Canute project is at, all the trials and tribulations. We also explain how the mechanism works in great detail. Those who can't attend (which is the majority, as there are 255 members, many not in the UK or Ireland) can discuss the Canute with us online (

It was thrashed out over many such meetings that the initial price of the Canute should attempt to match the retail price of the Perkins Brailler. This was just about within the limits of what Bristol Braille thought it could manage. This was decided upon after discussions about the complexity of the technology, the realities of potential user's purchasing capabilities, and the best immediate use cases for the Canute.

As we lacked (and still lack) the resources to create more than one initial model we asked them to choose the use case for us. Schools, colleges and parents came out top. The Perkins price was significant because of another decision made by the Braillists, that Bristol braille should target the Canute initially at the educational market, where Perkins are more often afforded than not.

This is how the Canute's development works (its a long read):

Neither Bristol Braille nor the Braillists groups will be sated with the initial Canute model's design or price. We want to create smaller, far cheaper and more even more featureful designs in the future. Personally I would like to make a display for under US$300 / £200, even if it isn't 360 cells. One day!

We hope that one of the most important symbolic changes the Canute will bring will be to prove that, if a tiny under-funded not for profit outfit operating out of a Hackspace in Bristol, backed by a self-organising group of two hundred odd enthusiasts, can make 360 cell refreshable Braille for half the price of 40 cell refreshable Braille sold by profit making companies who have been in the industry for decades, then anything is possible!

By the way, I'd love to be able to demonstrate the Canute Mk10 to you and some of your readers some time. If you're interested please do come join us on the forums (, where demos are arranged, or sign up to the Braillists newsletter, where demos are announced (



Firstly, I'd like to take a moment to thank Ed once again for taking the time to come and share that information.

Secondly, as I said in reply via the comments section, I'm glad to hear that will be the case when it comes to accessability of books. At least that means those who manage to save up the money for one will have plenty of available reading material.

I do understand your reasons for the price being so high, and appreciate the fact it's expensive to create the technology. I still wish it wasn't the case though. Please don't take offence at my complaints over the price tag. I complain about the cost of my screen reader all the time, but it doesn't stop me saving up to buy the updates as often as I can.

Oh, and I'd love to see a demonstration of how it works... It would be interesting, I think.

Something I'd like to add though is that: just because I understand the reasons for the price tags, doesn't mean I have to like it. I mean, I wouldn't mind quite so much if there was more help available for those of us who want to afford the technology. Some of us don't get help affording even things that are considered essential tools, let alone things that are only for pleasure once you're no longer in school. I totally agree that the price of the Canute is more reasonable than the cost of many of the things out there that are potentially useful tools for the visually impaired. I also accept that there is plenty of technology out there that costs as much and isn't as potentially useful... Some of the newer iPads and games machines cost as much, or nearly so, for example. However, that doesn't change the fact that it costs more than my rent for the month, nor the fact that I'm irritated by the insistance on calling those kinds of prices affordable.

Also, a brailler costs that much now? Seriously? When did that happen? My brailler is a limited edition red one, which was only available for a certain length of time when I was in my teens - though I see they have a raspberry "smart brailler" for sale via the RNIB, if you want to pay more than twice the price of a normal brailler to get one. Still, even if you just buy the standard brailler, and are a person or organization who doesn't have to pay VAT on things like that (which is the case via the RNIB in certain situations, and with certain products) that still means it costs more for a brailler than it cost for my computer... Even if you include the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers. I don't even know what to say to that...


Ed Rogers said...


Thanks for responding with a new article. Its good to cover important issues like book format accessibility and pricing publicly.

Continuing on the latter subject;

Whereever possible we try and describe the Canute as "radically more affordable", which is I think a fair comment, whereas "affordable" is obviously contentious. Like you, the target price is significantly more than a month's rent for me.

However the "more" and the context I gave in my last response --- i.e. that BBT and the Braillists recognise the current limits of the technology's affordability and are therefore targeting it as being affordable for certain initial use cases quite specifically --- does tend to get lost when we're being quoted.

"I wouldn't mind quite so much if there was more help available for those of us who want to afford the technology"

While BBT and the Braillists are both primarily focused on creating new technology that is cheaper to make, or pro-actively promoting Braille use, there is certainly a need for a joined up effort in this country to subsidise the cost of existing and new products further still.

"Also, a brailler costs that much now?"

You can get second hand ones from Ebay for £100 if you keep a sharp look-out. They are significantly cheaper in the States, but still hundreds of pounds.

"Oh, and by the way, I'd love to see how it works, but I can't travel far these days, so it would have to be a demo done very close to where I live for me to have any chance of making it. It's a shame, because if there's anyone who would be able to give the device a good test run it's me... I read a lot. "

If you sign-up to the Braillists newsletter then you never know, we might be able to make it. We try on focus on areas where there is a collection of people dedicated to long term testing of Canute.

Ed Rogers said...

P.S. You mention on Twitter being on the South East coast. We're looking to do trials and demos down in Brighton at some point over the next six months. Would that be viable for you?

Danielle L Zecher said...

I'm impressed that they've followed up with you so much.

Thank you for the education about braille readers. I honestly had no idea they were so expensive. I hope they're able to figure out a way to mass produce them, and make them truly affordable. For what it's worth, I agree with you that something that costs more than a month's rent or mortgage is not affordable.

Victoria Zigler said...

Thanks again for responding.

Yes, I know you were being honest about the price of a brailler. To be perfectly honest, I actually went and checked out their prices. I'm just amazed the price has basically trippled since I got mine... And not the good kind of amazed either.

Anyway, regarding the price of the Canute... I'm glad to see you recognize the difference between "more affordable" and "easily affordable" and that those of you involved in the project would actually like the price to drop. I'm also glad you recognize that help for aquiring equipment isn't always available when needed. It's some comfort knowing you appreciate and recognize that, even if it currently doesn't get me a fancy Kindle that reads braille.

Oh, and Brighton isn't quite close enough. If you can pop along to Hastings while you're in the South-East of England area, I could make it there, but Brighton is a little too far.

Victoria Zigler said...

Actually, I'm quite impressed that they took the time to follow up too, though I'm pleased they did, since it's nice to have some of my initial questions answered, and even nicer to know they're showing an interest in what the customer wants/needs or has concerns about.

Most technology and aids for disabled people are quite expensive. In some ways I can understand, because it does cost money to create the technology. But it really irritates me that the stuff costs so much, and then the people who claim they'll help you to afford it look for any loophole they can use to get out of it.

Intense Guy said...

Such an interesting dialogue. And yes, most technology and aids for disabled people are quite expensive. Hearing aides for one.

Victoria Zigler said...

Absolutely. It's not only aids for the visually impaired that tend to be quite expensive. Hearing aids and equipment to help people with other disabilities can be quite expensive too.